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Congressman Lloyd Doggett

Representing the 35th District of Texas

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Austin American Statesman Editorial: No more excuses: Hot air balloon pilot safety rules needed

May 14, 2019

Crash investigators have pleaded for it. Congress has demanded it.

But remarkably, the Federal Aviation Administration has still not created basic rules to help prevent hot air ballooning accidents like the catastrophic 2016 crash near Lockhart that killed all 16 people on board.

As the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz recently reported, the FAA has busted a 180-day deadline imposed by Congress to create rules requiring balloon pilots to undergo the same periodic medical checks as airplane and helicopter operators. Had they been required years ago, such checks might have raised flags about balloon pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols, who had a history of drunken driving arrests and a cocktail of prescription drugs in his system when his balloon drifted into power lines on July 30, 2016.

The FAA issued a vague statement saying it is working on some kind of action. But given the agency’s longstanding resistance to providing basic oversight of balloon operators, we are concerned the FAA is slow-walking the issue. Members of Congress should join U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, in demanding the FAA deliver these life-saving safety checks.

Tragically, it took the crash near Lockhart to bring searing clarity to the recommendations made two years earlier by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation crashes. The board warned in 2014 of the potential for a “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident” if federal officials did not adopt stricter regulations of hot air balloon tour operators, including periodic medical checks.

It’s bad enough the FAA ignored the call for such safety regulations in the two years before the Lockhart crash, when the U.S. had 25 balloon accidents with four fatalities and 25 serious injuries. It’s inexcusable to keep stalling now, nearly three years after 16 others died in the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history.

For years, balloon industry leaders have resisted such regulation as an unnecessary burden. That’s nonsense. Aviation has risks. It’s the government’s job to protect the public by setting safety standards and ensuring operators are fit to fly.

Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before another makeshift memorial of flowers and photographs appears at another crash site.